Hearts That Break Silently ; Anita Brookner Offers Us Another Polite but Profoundly Solitary Heroine

By Kehe, Marjorie | The Christian Science Monitor, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Hearts That Break Silently ; Anita Brookner Offers Us Another Polite but Profoundly Solitary Heroine


Kehe, Marjorie, The Christian Science Monitor


It was Henry David Thoreau who so famously opined that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. But there has perhaps never been a novelist more skilled than Anita Brookner at producing detailed portraits of what an exquisite female version of that desperation might look like.

Over the years, Brookner has offered us more than one heroine who glides through life thoughtfully and decorously. She measures her words with caution and exercises infinite care not to disturb life's harmonious surface.

But the practiced ears of Brookner's readers will easily detect the screams that tremble unformed just beneath.

Emma Roberts, the heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner's 23rd novel, is such a character. She joins her spiritual kin, other Brookner females, as yet another cautious observer, a woman unsure she wants to jump into life's messy melee even as she despairs of missing out on its joys.

Emma has been raised alone in London by her widowed mother. They have lived in an atmosphere of melancholy and solitude, and that is the milieu Emma finds comfortably reassuring - even as it suffocates her.

Finally, however, in her mid-20s, she summons up the courage to travel to Paris to study 17th-century garden design. (This is her passion, an art form that embraces what Emma calls "the classical code - reticence, sobriety, order.")

In a Parisian library, she meets Francoise, who is in some respects her Gallic counterpart - a dutiful daughter also raised alone by a widowed mother. Francoise, however, is the French version of that experience: a young woman "electric with an energy that made her presence in the library dangerously welcome."

Emma and Francoise become friends, despite Emma's understanding that Francoise views her as "timid, inhibited, backward, and altogether harmless." When Emma's mother suddenly dies, she is called back to London, but not out of Francoise's life.

On the contrary, as Emma spends much of the rest of the book ricocheting back and forth between Paris and London, in some ways the two women draw closer than ever, especially when an eerie symmetry develops in their life trajectories.

Despite their differences, it becomes apparent that the two are engaged in equally fierce battles to separate from the burdens their mothers have imposed on them.

In Emma's case, it means a struggle to break free from "a tendency to melancholy, to rumination, an acceptance of solitude" - all of which cut her off from the simple pleasures of companionship even now that her mother is gone. …

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